Photographing the new South Africa

A report from Johannesburg.

There's a moment in the South African writer Ivan Vladislavic's 2006 memoir Portrait With Keys in which he describes the arrival of a new black resident on Blenheim Street in the Kensington neighbourhood of Johannesburg. (Kensington is one of several scruffy, scrubby, low-rise suburbs that stretch east of the city's central business district.) It's the early 1990s, and the ethnic physiognomy of Kensington and neighbourhoods like it is changing as the country prepares for its first multi-racial, democratic elections in 1994. Vladislavic notices that the new arrivals at No. 10 Blenheim Street have employed a woman to "paint a Ndebele design on their garden wall". Later, when the mural is finished, he wishes he'd documented its composition:

It would have made a wonderful photographic essay ... That intricate pattern, vibrant and complex as stained glass ... spreading out, segment by segment over a blank white wall. What a metaphor for the social transformation we were living through.

Using photography to document the "social transformation" that South Africa, and its largest city in particular, continues to undergo is one of the aims of a major exhibition that will open at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in April. "Figures and Fictions", co-curated by the art historian Tamar Garb and the V&A's Martin Barnes, will present work by 17 photographers (from established names such as David Goldblatt and Pieter Hugo to newcomers like Zanele Muholi and Sabelo Mlangeni) that responds in different ways to what Garb sees as the country's "powerful rethinking of issues of identity across race, gender, class and politics".

Several of the photographers are especially interested in recording the impressions that these convulsive changes have left on the urban fabric of Johannesburg. Sabelo Mlangeni, for instance, records the lives of the residents of a men-only workers' hostel in the city in a series of images entitled "Men Only". I spent five days in Johannesburg last week, during which I met Mlangeni and accompanied him on a walking tour of the city's downtown, an area abandoned in some haste by white businesses in the mid-1990s, after the collapse of apartheid. Many of the office buildings those businesses left behind (forsaking them for the secure compounds of the northern suburbs), most of them dangerous and insanitary, have been turned into homes, mainly by black migrants - from both rural South Africa (Mlangeni himself was born and raised in the eastern province of Mpumalanga, near the border with Swaziland) and elsewhere on the continent. These people aren't squatters, however; they pay rent for their tiny rooms, often to criminal landlords (a phenomenon portrayed in Ralph Ziman's 2008 film Jerusalema and Rehad Desai's documentary The Battle for Johannesburg).

Mlangeni showed us the building he'd lived in when he first arrived in Joburg several years ago. A flyblown, four-storey block in which children raced up and down the stairwells and shouted at us from broken windows. He also took us to the Wolhuter Men's Hostel in Jeppestown, similar to the one he photographed in "Men Only" and only a couple of miles, in fact, from Ivan Vladislavic's home in Kensington. The residents here are all Zulus, from the province of KwaZulu-Natal. Judging by the number of young men thronging the hostel's filthy courtyard, few of them have succeeded in finding work - the reason they came to Joburg in the first place. Unemployment in South Africa in the last quarter of 2010 stood at 25.3 per cent (and the figure is higher for black South Africans). This is a reminder that, as Tamar Garb puts it, "the advent of democracy [in South Africa] ... has not been enough to counter the social and political hardships of people, both citizens and foreigners, and that the safeguarding of the rights and livelihoods of all its inhabitants ... remains an ongoing struggle and challenge".


Sabelo Mlangeni lived in this decrepit block when he first arrived in Johannesburg.


Sabelo Mlangeni, Johannesburg, 17 January 2010.


Children in the block across the street. Below, the Wolhuter Men's Hostel in Jeppestown, Johannesburg. (Photographs by Jonathan Derbyshire)




Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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The filmmaker forcing the British Board of Film Classification to watch Paint Drying for hours on end

The film does what it says on the tin.

Would you watch paint dry for several hours? If you work for the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), you might not have much choice in the matter. As a protest against problems he sees within the organisation, British filmmaker and journalist Charlie Lyne has launched a Kickstarter to send the BBFC a film he’s made called Paint Drying. It does what it says on the tin: the film is a single, unbroken shot lasting several hours (its length is determined by the amount of money raised) of white paint slowly drying on a brick wall. Once Lyne has paid the fee, the board are obliged to watch it.

“I’ve been fascinated by the BBFC – and censorship in general – for ages, but it was only when I went to a BBFC open day earlier this year that I felt properly frustrated by the whole thing,” Lyne told me. “There was a lot of discussion that day about individual decisions the board had made, and whether they were correct, but no discussions whatsoever about whether the BBFC should have the kind of power it has in the first place.”

The 2003 Licencing Act imposes the following rules on cinemas in the UK: cinemas need licenses to screen films, which are granted by local authorities to the cinemas in their area. These licences include a condition requiring the admission of children to any film to normally be restricted in accordance with BBFC age ratings. This means that in order to be shown easily in cinemas across the country, films need an age rating certificate from the BBFC. This is where, for Lyne, problems begin: a certificate costs around £1,000 for a feature film of average length, which, he says, “can prove prohibitively expensive” for many independent filmmakers.

It’s a tricky point, because even Lyne acknowledges on his blog that “this is actually a very reasonable fee for the services rendered”. The BBFC pointed out to me that its income is “derived solely from the fees it charges for its services”. So is the main issue the cost, or the role he feels the BBFC play in censorship? The Kickstarter page points out that the BBFC's origins are hardly liberal on that front:

The British Board of Film Classification (previously known as the British Board of Film Censors) was established in 1912 to ensure films remained free of 'indecorous dancing', 'references to controversial politics' and 'men and women in bed together', amongst other perceived indiscretions. 

Today, it continues to censor and in some cases ban films, while UK law ensures that, in effect, a film cannot be released in British cinemas without a BBFC certificate.

It might be true “in effect”, but this is not a legal fact. The 2003 Licensing Act states, “in particular circumstances, the local authority can place their own restrictions on a film. Film distributors can always ask a local authority for a certificate for a film banned by the BBFC, or a local category for a film that the BBFC has not classified.” The BBFC point out that “film makers wishing to show their films at cinemas in the UK without a BBFC certificate may do so with permission from the local authority for the area in which the cinema is located.” There you have it – the BBFC does not have the absolute final word on what can be shown at your local Odeon.

While the BBFC cannot officially stop cinemas from showing films, they can refuse to categorise them in any category: something Lyne says mostly happens with “quite extreme horror films and pornography, especially feminist pornography made by people like Petra Joy and Pandora Blake, but it could just as easily be your favourite movie, or mine.” This makes large-scale release particularly difficult, as each individiual local authority would have to take the time and resources to overrule the decision. This means that, to get screened easily in cinemas, a film essentially needs a BBFC-approved rating. Lyne adds, “I think films should also be allowed to be released unrated, as they are in the US, so that independent filmmakers with no money and producers of niche, extreme content aren’t at the mercy of such an expensive, censorial system.”

Does he think Paint Drying can make that a possibility? “I realise this one small project isn’t going to completely revolutionise British film censorship or anything, but I hope it at least gets people debating the issue. The BBFC has been going for a hundred years, so it’s got tradition on its side, but I think it's important to remember how outraged we’d all be if an organisation came along tomorrow and wanted to censor literature, or music. There's no reason film should be any different.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.